MBNA founder Charles Cawley delivers inaugural UD Presidential Lecture
Charles Cawley: “Entrepreneurial, creative, risk-taking--they all mean the same thing.”
UD President Patrick Harker (left) and Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw (right), dean of the Lerner College, present Cawley with a framed tribute recognizing the honorary doctor of humanities degree the University conferred on him at Commencement in May.
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4:01 p.m., Nov. 7, 2008----Charles Cawley, who built MBNA Corp. from a shoestring operation into the nation's largest independent credit card company in just 21 years, told a University of Delaware audience Thursday, Nov. 6, that the term entrepreneur “is far broader and much more important” than commonly thought.

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“Entrepreneurial, creative, risk-taking--they all mean the same thing,” Cawley said in delivering the inaugural Presidential Lecture on Entrepreneurship to a capacity crowd in the Louise and David Roselle Center for the Arts' Gore Recital Hall. He urged the audience of students, faculty and community members, including many of his former colleagues, to use the adjective form of the word and to think of “the entrepreneurial spirit” as not limited to those who start their own businesses but as also found in some employees of large organizations.

“I was an entrepreneurial manager” from the start, said Cawley, who founded MBNA in 1982 as a subsidiary of Maryland National Bank and retired in 2003 as president and chief executive officer of what had become its own corporation. He said he and the four other executives who founded the company always thought and worked with an entrepreneurial attitude that led them to try new approaches and to have confidence in the eventual success of their ideas.

“We decided that, to be successful, we had to get the right customers, and we had to keep the right customers,” Cawley said, adding that the large credit card companies with which MBNA was competing “didn't think about that much” in the early 1980s. Those companies were large businesses that functioned and made decisions automatically, not entrepreneurially, he said.

By contrast, MBNA began by renting space in a vacant supermarket in Ogletown, Del., where Cawley said the company's future was so uncertain that the founders signed a dozen 30-day leases in case they went out of business in less than a year. He described the company at the time as having 50 employees, 75,000 accounts totaling about $200 million and a ranking of No. 36 in size among 52 credit card issuers.

Through creative marketing and such pioneering innovations as the creation of “affinity group” credit cards, as well as a careful selection of credit-worthy customers--“We had no subprime customers; we had prime customers,” Cawley told his audience--MBNA grew at a rapid pace. By the time Cawley retired in 2003, the company had 50 million customers, 30,000 employees worldwide, including 11,000 in Delaware, $120 billion in loans and $2.3 billion in after-tax profits. In 2005, MBNA was acquired by Bank of America.

Affinity marketing, Cawley said, proved to be “a way to get the right customers in a way nobody else was doing.” By issuing specific types of credit cards to members of designated groups, MBNA was able to develop a customer base that included 700 colleges and universities, including UD, and a majority of the physicians, attorneys, dentists and engineers in the U.S.

MBNA's focus was entrepreneurial in other ways as well, Cawley said, with employees--always called “the people of MBNA”--as the company's first priority, followed by customer satisfaction, then shareholder satisfaction and philanthropy in the community.

Cawley also praised the late Alfred Lerner, for whom UD's Lerner College of Business and Economics is named, as “a true businessman and entrepreneur.” Mr. Lerner was the chairman of MBNA from 1991 until his death in 2002, and Cawley credited him with obtaining the financing that enabled the company to go public in 1991.

Mr. Lerner wasn't usually the person who started the businesses in which he was involved or even had the idea of starting them, Cawley said. Instead, he said, “He was an entrepreneurial helper. He made things happen.”

Cawley was introduced by University President Patrick Harker, who said the lecture series originated as part of UD's increasing emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation by students and faculty members, both individually and in collaborative partnerships. He described the inaugural speaker as someone whose entrepreneurial spirit “has had a lasting impact on this University, on this state and on the nation.”

After the lecture, Harker and Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, dean of the Lerner College, presented Cawley with a framed tribute recognizing the honorary doctor of humanities degree the University conferred on him at Commencement in May.

The lecture was preceded by Cawley's visit to the Lerner College's new Venture Development Center, where he sat down with some students for an informal question-and-answer session.

After the lecture, a reception was held in the Roselle Center for the Arts.

Article by Ann Manser
Photos by Kevin Quinlan